Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ho Chi Minh City: Seafood And Caramel

I got an Air Mekong flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and then a taxi to the backpackers’ area in District One. An old woman led me down an alley to her hotel off Pham Ngu Lao, and then I hit the streets.

It was a strange feeling. Normally I’m quite happy on my own, but after two weeks of company on Phu Quoc island, loneliness crept in liked a wounded badger.

All I could think about was heading back to Sihanoukville. I missed the cooking and wanted to get back in the kitchen, but I still had two weeks left on my visa and was determined to see some of Vietnam. And in truth, I had no idea where I would be heading next.

My mood wasn’t helped by the appalling congestion. Ho Chi Minh City is an idiotic maelstrom of chaos just like every other Asian city that views pedestrians as the bottom of the food chain. Traffic priority is based solely on the size of your vehicle, and you need 360-degree vision just to cross the road.

There are no enforced street laws - mopeds ride on the pavement, the wrong way down one-way streets, in fact the wrong way down every street. The Vietnamese clearly hate walking just as much as the Cambodians and Thais, and mopeds are seen as a status symbol. Everyone who walks wants a moped, and everyone who has a moped wants a car, and you’re left with the sad realisation that the world will never be free of its addiction to gasoline – not when it’s only a dollar a litre anyway.

It makes you appreciate capitals like London, which have embraced pedestrians and cyclists. In Ho Chi Minh City, all you see is row after row of moped drivers, their faces covered in masks. It’s like a million bank robbers have taken over the city.

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Sometimes it takes you ten minutes to cross a road. And even when the pedestrian lights are green, it doesn’t mean it’s safe to cross – moped drivers sail through red lights as gamely as street walkers, so the only way forward is to take your life in your hands and dodge your way across packed roads as though you’re in some weird Frogger game.

And to make matters worse, you can’t judge the width of each moped because they could be carrying anything from 50 durian fruit to a family of six in the side-saddle position. Suddenly, a moped smashed into a taxi and shed its crates of beer. I’d been standing there waiting to cross just a few moments earlier, until I got bored and decided to carry on walking up my side of the street.

But I’m glad to say the traffic, as appalling as it is, is made up for by the food. The way they do seafood, for instance, is fantastic. You pick the crabs, and scallops, snails, winkles, mussels, clams, and other assorted molluscs, and then the stallholder weighs them on fixed scales and quotes you a price, scalping you accordingly, if you’re a wide-eyed tourist.

Thankfully, they don’t cover the seafood in peanuts like they do at every fish restaurant on Phu Quoc. Instead, they simmer it in caramel sauce, which I thoroughly recommend trying (you can make the caramel sauce by simmering half a cup of sugar with a little water until the liquid is brown, then add some fish sauce and ground pepper to taste, and cool completely before using).

The stallholder fried finely diced garlic and a smattering of red chilli in vegetable oil until the garlic was lightly browned, then added cracked, cooked crab claws and raw shellfish and tossed them over a medium heat. She added a ladle of caramel sauce, and a knob of butter, and continued to toss the seafood around in the wok (above). She covered it for a minute for the molluscs to steam open, and then added some greens, and served it on a metal plate with a side dish of sea salt, Kampot pepper, chopped chilli and lime juice.

The taste was incredible. The lime cut the sweetness, and the sticky caramel coated the shells and gave them a lip-smacking, shell-sucking unctuousness that went brilliantly with green label Saigon beer poured on chunks of ice. I’ve since learned to eat crabs like the Vietnamese, and crunch up the claws, shell and all. It’s a messy business, but a brilliant way to pass an hour people watching.

Then I met a couple of Filipino girls in the street. One of them had seen the scallop shell round my neck and wanted to know all about it. We sat down at a street bar and bought some beers, and I told them about my love of cooking, and they invited me round to their home for lunch the next day, saying they would cook me a Filipino meal.

I met them at a noodle shop and we caught a taxi to their uncle’s house. He was a large man, draped in gold, and his sole conversation was money. He wanted to know just how expensive it was in the UK, and nodded enthusiastically when I told him how much a coffee costs, or how much hotels are. Then he started asking whether I had a house, and how much it was worth, and tried to fix me up with one of his nieces.

The interrogation continued as we sat down to eat mongo (above), fried fish, and prawns that you dipped in chopped garlic and vinegar (below). They said it was traditional for Filipino families to eat mongo on Fridays, and it really was a tasty dish – stewed mung beans, onion, tomato, prawns, and chunks of bitter cucumber.

It had been cooked by their aunt, who ran a restaurant in the Philippines. She told me how Filipino food is heavily influenced by Spanish food from its colonial past, and it reminded me of some of the rustic, lentil stews you get in Spanish villages.

As soon as the meal was over, the girls blitzed the washing up and then grabbed their fake Gucci bags and sunglasses and ushered me out of the house. They kept apologising for their uncle’s questions as we sat at a bar and drank coffee. Then they quizzed me about their love problems. I don’t why they were asking me – they clearly saw me as some kind of agony uncle and wanted to get a male perspective on their latest dramas. I told them men should never be trusted. What else could I say?

That night I bought a chicken doner kebab. There was grease smeared all over the plate like candle wax. I thought about complaining, but the Turkish owner was a strange man wearing sunglasses even though it was midnight. I wasn’t going to take any chances. It would be terrible to criticise a blind man’s washing up.

The next day I went for a wander through the park, and in typical Communist style, there was a list of rules and regulations. Rule three stipulated visitors should not “be drunk, play gamble, participate in fortune telling and other evils” and “not tease animals”. It was quite a list.

I sat down on a bench in the baking heat. An old woman was asleep in the shade. A police officer on a moped drove up and beeped his horn until she got up. Clearly, even sleeping wasn’t allowed. But there was nothing about motorbikes. Not even the palm-shaded sanctuary of the park was free from mopeds.

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